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Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events…so very many unfortunate events

There’s not much I can say about Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events mini-series that hasn’t already been said (here, here, and here, for instance). I binge-watched the whole durn thing over a single weekend, and I’m not sorry. I started watching and fell instantly in love.

I’m most impressed by Patrick Warburton’s portrayal of the character Lemony Snicket…and the fact that there is a character of Lemony Snicket. It is Snicket’s voice that gives the books their tone: morose yet funny; optimistic in the face of hopeless circumstances. Having him physically present as a character — walking through scenes, hiding out in rooms reminiscent of scenes from A Beautiful Mind, and appearing in old photographs as someone who is actually tangentially related to the story — helps bring that tone to the screen. Warburton plays this role at somewhat of a remove, as if he is breaking the fourth wall to keep us viewers up to date. But he’s also very present — he is somehow related to the events in question, he’s important, and he does know what eventually became of those Baudelaire children. Neil Patrick Harris’s Count Olaf enhances the grim entertainment by managing to be both incredibly unlikable and amusing. He is not endearing, the viewer does not root for him, and he’s actually very sinister, but running gags and his general ineptitude keep him funny.

The worldbuilding of the show is remarkable. There’s a Victorian air to everything, but the bad guys have walkie-talkies; there are steampunk-style locking mechanisms, gramophones, secret sigils, trap doors, and cars. It’s impossible to get on solid footing era-wise in the world of Lemony Snicket, and so everything becomes possible. Flying lizards? Sure. Secret doorways that open onto the side of a mountain? Why not? Carnivorous leeches? Bring ’em on. Papa Baudelaire pilots a World War I–era plane, but Count Olaf waxes eloquent about the merits of streaming TV. At this point, I’ll believe anything you put in front of me.

The show also does a fabulous job presenting a major theme of the Series of Unfortunate Events books: that adults are often incompetent to the point of being dangerous. And here, unfortunately, is where the story loses me (both on the screen and on the page). Over and over again the Baudelaire children beg adults to please please listen to them — this man is a criminal who tried to marry an underage girl to steal her fortune, threatened physical harm on a baby, and has killed people they love. Please, he’s a bad man. Can you please not leave us alone with him? And over and over again the adults dismiss their concerns. How many times can you watch something go wrong? How many times can children be let down and thrown into danger? How much misfortune can one take before it becomes…well…tedious?

If you haven’t already viewed the show, I do suggest watching it — but in small doses. There’s so much to see, so much to engage with, and so much enjoyment to be taken in these grim but silly tales. Take your time with them and the misery they chronicle. Because sometimes too much of a good thing (a bad thing? an unfortunate thing?) simply is too much.

This is part of a series of posts on the recent profusion of children’s book adaptations available to stream on demand; click on the tag instant-gratification adaptations to read more.

Siân Gaetano About Siân Gaetano

Siân Gaetano is assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc. Follow her on Twitter @KidLitChick.

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Comments

  1. I’ve heard so much enthusiasm for this book series and movie series. After deciding the series is just really not for me, I tried watching the show and could (sort of) appreciate it for one episode. It’s good to hear you voice my response to the series in general. My interest is lost when there is literally no hope for the kids and they’re in completely gross and disturbing trouble. Obviously, there are many, many readers who can take the repetition of this line and even love it. Anyway, NOT ME! I am not even entertained by the premise of these books.

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